In a series of important moves that quickly and rightly drew the public praise of the White House, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia released three political prisoners in recent days.
One of the prisoners released was a high-profile advocate for women’s rights in the Kingdom.
Loujain al-Hathloul was released on Wednesday after more than 1,000 days in a Saudi jail.
She had been arrested for urging Riyadh to lift the ban denying women the right to drive.
The ban was lifted two years ago at the direction of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), yet some of the very activists calling for the move were jailed, sparking an international furor.
Upon hearing the news Wednesday, I immediately tweeted, “The release of #Loujain_alHathloul is a very big deal – I pray that the Saudis will continue releasing dissidents who have been held unjustly, including @raif_badawi. When I was last with Crown Prince MBS, my colleagues and I asked him to release prisoners & advance human rights.”
In remarks at the Pentagon in Washington, President Joe Biden called al-Hathloul’s release “welcome news.”
“The Saudi government has release a prominent women’s rights activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, from prison,” Biden told reporters.
“She was a powerful advocate for women’s rights and releasing her was the right thing to do,” he added.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, tweeted, “Pleased to see the release of Loujain al-Hathloul. This is a good thing.”
Last week, on Feb. 4, we also learned that the Saudis released two other political prisoners.
“Saudi Arabia on Thursday provisionally released two Saudi Americans after nearly two years of detention,” Voice of America reported. “Salah al-Haider, the son of a leading women’s rights activist, and Bader al-Ibrahim, a writer and doctor, were detained in April 2019 and charged with terrorism-related crimes.”
“Their release was reported by campaign groups Prisoners of Conscience and the Washington-based Freedom Initiative as well as two sources close to both their families who requested anonymity,” VOA noted.
“This is welcomed progress, even though it is long overdue,” Freedom Initiative’s Bethany al-Haidari said in a statement. “Bader al-Ibrahim and Salah al-Haider should have never been jailed in the first place and their release should certainly not be on a ‘temporary’ basis.”
The stories are making headlines around the world.
The Washington Post reported that al-Hathloul’s release is “the clearest sign yet that the kingdom’s leaders were taking steps to assuage President Biden’s complaints about human rights violations. Al-Hathloul, 31, has been among the most visible faces of an unrelenting Saudi crackdown on human rights advocates, dissidents and civil society activists. Her imprisonment, which lasted 1,001 days, and her allegations that she had been tortured, sparked an international outcry.”
The New York Times reported that “Ms. al-Hathloul’s release comes as the kingdom’s rulers, who enjoyed particularly warm relations with the Trump administration, seek to set a new tone with President Biden, who criticized Saudi Arabia during the campaign and vowed to reassess the United States’ relationship with the kingdom.”
Last fall, I reported on “a little-covered statement released on the Biden-Harris website on Oct. 22 – the second anniversary of the murder of Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi” in which Biden vowed to “reassess” the 75-year alliance between the U.S. and the Kingdom.
The good news is that the Saudi leadership appears to have taken the Biden statement to heart and is working to fix past mistakes and reposition itself with the new administration.
Let’s pray that the Saudis will continue to make major progress on human rights and religious freedom in 2021.
We are seeing movement in the right direction.
Much more is needed.